Robot and human touching forefingers

Rising Tide of Robots Propels Senior Living Into The Future

The future has descended upon senior living. Between robotic companions and competitions involving robotic devices, providers are increasingly turning to such technology to engage and care for residents—to astounding results.

Friendship Village of Schaumburg, a continuing care retirement community housing roughly 1,000 residents in Schaumburg, Illinois, recently partnered with a local middle school’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) club to participate with students in an aquatic robot competition.

And Front Porch, a senior living provider that manages and operates 11 full-service retirement communities primarily in Southern California, released the results of a six-month study based on memory care residents’ use of the therapeutic, socially assistive pet robot PARO.

Robots in senior living take many forms, as evidenced by these providers’ distinct experiences, but one thing seems clear: They’re here to stay.

A Robotics Competition

At Friendship Village, what began as Tefft Middle School simply looking to rent the community’s aquatic facility evolved into a full-fledged competition for students and residents alike.

Tefft’s STEM Club participates in the SeaPerch Robotics program, sponsored by the Office of Naval Research and developed to engage youth through mentorship and focus on interest and skills in science and technology. Through this program, they built SeaPerch underwater robotic devices. So when the school approached Friendship Village about a space to put them to work, Lifestyle Production Coordinator Roberta Anglin immediately saw it as a chance to get residents involved with technology.

“Everyone is moving toward technology, and students are interacting with it at such a young age that while they’re learning, it’s a fantastic opportunity to introduce seniors, as well,” Anglin tells Senior Housing News. “They can learn from each other as we become a more advanced society.”

Residents at Friendship Village already had some robotic background thanks to the community’s remote control club, but the event with students proved quite different. Students broke off into six teams, with a resident member on each. An obstacle course was set up in the pool, and in order to move on in the competition, the teams had to answer World War II trivia questions correctly.

There was quite a bit of excitement surrounding the event, even from residents who didn’t participate and went just to watch, Anglin says. Since Friendship Village constantly seeks out ways residents can grow and learn, the partnership stands to expand in the future.

“We’d love to have residents involved in actually building the robots in the future, to have the opportunity to learn even more about the technology behind it and why the robots operate the way they do,” Anglin says.

A Robotic, Therapeutic Seal

In some instances, robots break free from their hard exteriors of simply being gizmos and gadgets to play around with, to reveal an intrinsic, therapeutic value.

Enter PARO, a therapy robot crafted in the likeness of a baby harp seal and invented by Dr. Takanori Shibata, a Japanese engineer at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology and a Massachusetts Institute of Technology AgeLab research fellow. The robot is equipped with various sensors, such as textile, light, temperature and posture, and responds to different stimulators projected by the user.

Some might recognize it from its cameo appearance on the Netflix original series, “Master of None.” Most recently, it was the subject of a six-month use study conducted by Front Porch with residents at its Summer House memory care neighborhoods within seven retirement communities.

Courtesy Front Porch

Courtesy Front Porch

Front Porch recorded 920 PARO interventions and the effects the device had on older adults with dementia. For example, PARO helped increase social behavior by 97% among isolated adults; assisted 1530 of 193 residents in staying alert from initially sleepy behavior, leading to improved moods, socialization and appetite; and produced calming effects for residents in 73% of wandering and 59% of anxious behaviors.

“While we believed that PARO would be a very effective tool in positively impacting behaviors such as anxiety, wandering, pacing, sadness, isolation and sleepiness, what surprised us the most was the effect PARO had on mood, with an observed increase in uplifting and engaging behaviors that are sustained after PARO is taken away,” Kari Olson, chief technology officer of Front Porch and president of the Front Porch Center for Innovation and Wellbeing, told SHN in a statement.

There’s still much research to be done around robotics as they relate to senior care, but the results of the Front Porch study are promising, she said.

“We are very curious about the role that social robotics can play in senior care in the future—and believe this is an area that needs thoughtful and careful exploration, dialogue and research,” Olson said. “Our research with PARO has clearly demonstrated that putting this type of innovative tool in the hands of caring and well-trained staff has empowered [them] to bring incredible benefits to residents. Creating this type of positive impact on the lives of those we are privileged to serve is the future we are all trying to create in senior care.”

Written by Kourtney Liepelt